The Biden administration has gone in big on the electrified future of vehicle transportation. After committing in 2021 to a goal of 50 percent electric vehicle (EV) sales by 2030, it one-upped itself with a new directive last month from the EPA to have two out of every three vehicles sold be an EV by 2032. In 2022, less than six percent of new passenger car sales in the U.S. were EVs, meaning we’d be looking at a swing of more than half of the entire auto market to EVs in a decade. The U.S. averages 14 million car sales per year. Can America do it?
From a climate action standpoint, many would argue that it’s imperative. When the Biden administration in 2021 committed the U.S. to its target of 50-52 percent greenhouse gas emissions reductions below 2005 levels by 2030, it was a stretch goal. But the passage in summer 2022 of the Inflation Reduction Act, a nearly $400-billion bet on clean energy in many forms, has put that Paris-aligned climate goal back in play—or almost. The pathway to decarbonization of the transportation sector—at 29 percent, transport is the biggest wedge of the American emissions pie—is believed by most to depend on electrification, and we need a massive commitment to new EVs to make a dent: the average age of a car plying the roads is over 12 years, meaning we need to scale up fast in order to turn over the vehicle fleet to electric.
This brings us back to the EPA proposal. The new regulations, announced April 12, technically regulate the tailpipe emissions from new sales of cars and trucks rather than mandating EV technology, but are sufficiently stringent to effectively require zero-emissions vehicles given that there are few alternatives to EVs that would both qualify and would be commercially competitive. The phase-in schedule, subject to conditions on automaker compliance, anticipates up to 67 percent EV share of light-duty vehicle sales by 2032.
This won’t be easy. To quote John Bozzella of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, “Factors outside the vehicle, like charging infrastructure, supply chains, grid resiliency, the availability of low carbon fuels and critical minerals will determine whether EPA standards at these levels are achievable.” Each of these factors presents a devilish challenge in its own right. Though the Biden administration trumpets the fact that there are now 130,000 public EV chargers in operation across America, the U.S. will likely need to increase tenfold the number of charging stations to meet the need for EV charging infrastructure. (Additionally, users complain that many public chargers frequently break down.) And there are concerns that as EVs saturate neighborhoods, electricity grid infrastructure may not be up to the task, as has been the case in places like the Netherlands.
Another tremendous challenge: China maintains a dominant chokehold on EV supply chains, creating troubling geostrategic and business vulnerabilities for companies and consumers in the West. The scale of China’s dominance in EV batteries is particularly arresting, in 2022 reaching 77 percent of battery manufacturing capacity and 69 percent for key battery components. Having invested nearly $30 billion in subsidies for EV production from 2009 to 2022, the Chinese government bet big (and early) on the EV supply chain and developing domestic markets. These bets to foster the supply chain and market have paid off, as 60 percent of global EVs in 2022 were sold in China. China is looking to lock in its battery manufacturing advantage further, and continue to leverage China’s other critical advantage: control of virtually the entire value chain for EV battery inputs, such as rare earth elements and other irreplaceable metals. As geopolitical tensions with China rise, these supply chain vulnerabilities are looming large and are difficult to address in compressed time frames.
Perhaps most daunting, the world needs to dramatically scale up production of metals—lithium, manganese, graphite, cobalt, nickel and copper, among others—to power the clean energy transition, particularly EVs and their batteries. A global transportation transition aligned with the Paris Agreement will require the number EVs on the road to grow from roughly 26 million at the end of 2022 to roughly 350 million by 2030. The supply chain issue is so serious that the U.S. government has formally designated many of these inputs as “critical minerals” whose domestic supply is under threat in facing the EV battery challenge.
Of particular concern is the environmental impact of the transition of the auto industry to EVs. While all car production is resource-intensive, electric cars consume nearly six times more critical minerals per vehicle than conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Much of this is related to the lithium-ion batteries that electric cars currently require, though additional copper and zinc are needed for the electric system wiring and other drivetrain features.
The batteries alone will require a massive scaleup of critical minerals mining for which the industry is unprepared. One report projects nearly 400 new mines will be required to ensure adequate supply of these metals. According to some industry experts, this bottleneck may not be solvable in the short term. Even presuming the mines materialize on schedule, the environmental impact will be high. In the United States, efforts to mine critical minerals in Idaho (cobalt), Nevada (lithium) and Arizona (manganese and zinc, uranium) have raised concerns about encroachment on land of Native Americans, habitat destruction,
The social and environmental impacts tend to be far worse in countries where there are weaker regulatory regimes and law enforcement—and where most critical minerals are currently sourced. Artisanal (and often illegal) mines in the Colombian and Venezuelan Amazon, the Congo, Brazil, China and Southeast Asia for relatively rare and valuable metals lead to devastating environmental impacts on local ecosystems and populations, to say nothing of labor abuses that are frequently rampant.
This is not to say that all mining abuses and adverse environmental impacts are inevitable, nor that the electric battery industry is solely or even primarily responsible for these issues to date. That said, EVs entrench the dependency on mines: an EV pickup requires more than 600 pounds of aluminum, for example—150 pounds more than a conventional one—and the mining and refinement of bauxite (its raw ore) and alumina have devastated communities in the Brazilian Amazon. Nickel—on which current battery technology depends—is fantastically destructive at mines in Indonesia and New Caledonia.
Can recycling or new technology help? Some argue that scaling up battery recycling can make a difference, or transitioning away from lithium, cobalt, and nickel in batteries can be a game-changer. But in years to come, recycling cannot displace more than a fraction of need for new supply, and alternative technologies are years away—or may not be viable in the U.S. market due to range limitations and colder climates.
Can the electric vehicle transition deliver on its promise, and without replacing the climate problem with societal ills of similar scale? The climate may demand it, but we must reckon with these supply chain realities if we are not only to make the transportation low-carbon transition stick, but also to manage the attendant social and environmental consequences.